How to hire your first engineers


When you’re ready to hire your first engineers, what characteristics should you look for? Read on to find out how to avoid costly failed hires and recruit engineers who stay longer and help you build your company.
As an early-stage founder, the moment you realize you’re ready to make your first engineering hire is an exciting time — but knowing what to look for in your initial candidates can be tricky.
Your earliest engineers will create the foundation of your product, and they’ll play a key role in establishing your long-term company culture.
At my startup company, Jellyfish, we focus on maximizing the business impact of engineering — so we know exactly how critical it is to build a solid team of builders, makers, and designers during the earliest stages of your company.
Want to feel confident going into the recruiting and interviewing process when you’re ready to put your engineering team together? Read on to find out what to look for at each phase of your startup lifecycle.

You’ll need a wide range of skills

When building an engineering team, you’re putting a “band” together. Whether it’s a three-piece band or a full orchestra, you’ll need people who play different instruments. With your engineering team, you’ll need various skill sets, e.g., backend and mobile.
Before you start recruiting, picture your “dream hires” and list the characteristics and skill sets you’re looking for. This list should include technical and soft skills.
During the interviewing process, assess each candidate against these criteria, and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each person with your hiring team.
Look for soft skills like communication, emotional intelligence, flexibility, resilience, and an appetite for learning. Your early-stage engineers should also share your entrepreneurial spirit and be willing to embrace a little bit of chaos as part of your startup culture.
As far as technical skills as concerned, consider the gaps in your current team. Are there particular tech skills you’re missing? Be ready to give newcomers opportunities and provide them the chance to be proactive with learning when they come on board.
If you’re a non-technical founder, get advice from tech experts you trust as you establish your hiring criteria — or even consider outsourcing hiring until you’ve brought on your first skilled engineer.
Here are some guidelines for what you should look for at two critical stages in your startup growth.

What to look for in different stages of your company growth

Seed round hiring

Your startup is still conducting research and gaining market validation at this stage, so you don’t need to build the perfect software. Even a visually appealing, full-featured version of your software won’t help you scale if no one uses it — so plan on starting with a basic solution to get buy-in from prospective users.
In this stage, look for risk-taskers who aren’t afraid to ride the startup wave and sign on for an unpredictable future. Instead of a static set of skills, you’ll need engineers who can adapt quickly to a fast-paced environment.

Hiring after Series A

During Series A financing, you aim to actively start development and progress toward a full product launch. You’re laying the foundation for a scalable company during this stage, and your engineering hiring should reflect that.
Find a senior-level, full-stack developer who can manage architecture development and deal with the management decisions at this stage. Then build a “dream team” around that person. These first employees should be skillful enough to handle critical engineering decisions.
Seek developers with extensive hands-on experience who can adjust to a rapidly-shifting startup environment. The right engineers will be able to extrapolate solutions matched to your current implementation so you can accelerate your time to market.
When hiring during this stage, don’t assess an engineer’s ability strictly based on the number of languages on their resume. Instead, look at their technical experience on previous projects. Include architectural questions in your interview and ask candidates how they would implement industry-specific features. Look for ambitious engineers with a solutions-oriented attitude.

Why every engineer should have product instinct

Every engineer, builder, maker, or designer on your team should have some product instinct.
Product managers sometimes have good data to support their decisions — and sometimes they don’t. Often they need to rely on product intuition to fill in gaps in the research, understand the problem's context, and extrapolate the users' needs.
Product instinct is the ability to reach meaningful conclusions without getting into deep cognitive analysis, and it’s a quality you should look for in all your early-stage engineers.
Your engineers don’t have to be product managers, but when you’re in the early stages of your startup, you don’t have time to have every decision written down in a spec. It helps to have engineers who can think quickly and intuit the right answers.
Every engineer should understand the use case of your product and should be willing and able to go on sales calls and meet with customers.

Two critical team member requirements for a strong engineering team foundation

When we hired our earliest team members, there were only two qualities we were looking for: intelligence and strong collaboration skills. These sound simple, but they’re critical characteristics for your first few engineering hires.
I recommend looking for smart people who can adapt and learn from their mistakes. Screw-ups are inevitable, but your team members need to be able to adapt when things go wrong. In your interviews, look for people with a growth mindset who believe their talents can be developed through hard work, receiving feedback, and admitting errors when they occur.
Your early-stage makers should also have strong communication and collaboration skills. If your engineers can’t express themselves and work together, your company won’t succeed.

Recommendations for hiring a successful engineering team

Hiring great engineers can be challenging, especially in a competitive job market — but having the right recruiting strategy and hiring process can help you ensure the right fit as you prepare to scale your startup.
Follow these guidelines to find the engineers that will grow with your team:
  • Plan on hiring for a wide range of abilities, including technical and soft skills
  • During seed round funding, focus on gaining market validation and look for risk-takers who can deal with an unpredictable environment
  • After Series A, hire a talented full-stack engineer with critical skills, then build your dream team around that person.
  • During your entire recruiting process, look for smart engineers with strong collaboration skills

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